Untangling an African Medical Mystery

Kyle Casey, Research Unplugged Intern
March 23, 2011
head shot of Steven Schiff

Steven Schiff

On Wednesday, March 16—at the first Research Unplugged event of the semester—Dr. Steven Schiff transported the audience to a clinic in Eastern Africa without even asking them to leave their seats.

In his talk titled Untangling an African Medical Mystery: Engineering Solutions to Infant Brain Infections, he focused on his field experiences in eastern Africa conducting research, treating infants, and searching for a solution to the wave of hydrocephalus that has stricken the region's newborns.

Aided by photographs, Schiff vividly described traveling village to village throughout Uganda, searching for families with hydrocephalic infants. Hydrocephalus—a condition defined by a build-up of fluid in the skull—can be attributed to over 180 different causes. To help the Ugandan doctors prevent new cases, Schiff and his colleagues scoured the countryside, gathering clues.

All roads lead to one culprit: animal dung. Noting the frequent clustering of cases, Schiff described the—to us—startling living conditions of many Ugandan villages: huts lined entirely with dung in order to provide insulation and deter bothersome insects from entering.

Packing the data, equipment, and knowledge acquired in Uganda with him, Schiff hopped on a plane back to State College, but not before noting the baffled expressions of airport security directed toward his unusual cargo.

He explained to the audience that research is currently being conducted at the University to improve treatment and diagnosis of hydrocephalus, optimistically adding that he would like to return to Uganda in a year with a proven culprit—and a cure.

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Last Updated March 23, 2011